By Jemma King
Tour, snacks, and (drum rolls)… beer? Kirin Brewery in Shiga is the place to go if you want all three, for free. Seriously, what else can beat that? Its factory and tasting tours take you on an incredible journey through the making of Japan’s top selling black tea beverage - Gogo no Kocha “Afternoon Tea”, and No.1 Beer - Kirin Lager Beer.
Once a local brewery based in Yokohama, Kirin is now a household name, one of the top beverage companies with more than 13 factories in Japan. While all of the factories offer free tour, this one here in Hikone, Shiga, is the one with tours for both its alcohol and non-alcohol beverages product lines, and a worthy tribute to Wazuka in nearby Kyoto prefecture, the home of Japan's best Gyokuro tea.
There are two different tours to choose from: the Kirin Beer Tour and the Afternoon Tea Tour which are around 80 minutes in duration. Each tour runs twice per day, starting from 10:00 and 13:30. This means you can do Beer Tour in the morning and the Afternoon Tea in the afternoon, or vice versa.
The factory visit
After a heartwarming welcome by the staff at the Guest Hall building, you will be taken to the heart of the factory by its bright red Kirin bus. The 60 minute factory visit is only in Japanese, but you will be stunned by the intricacy of the machineries. It’s precise. It’s fast. It’s efficient.
Seeing all the bottles flying through all the different machines, to be shaped and filled, is simply breathtaking. The one I went on, the Afternoon Tea Tour, everyone was glued to the glass window almost all the time, looking at 900 bottles of ‘Afternoon Tea’ being made every minute. It is unfortunate that photos are not allowed.
But the tour is not just about looking through the observation window. There are a lot of hands-on experience as the guide takes you through the different manufacturing process. You will get to print your own label and smell the ingredients.
The rich fragrance of the tea samples, each with distinctive characteristics, got us excited for the tasting session at the end of the tour. The lady next to me was so lucky to be chosen by the guide to make herself a fresh cup of Gogo no Kocha. I wish I’ve had raised up my hand. Apparently there is only one spot per tour.
The tasting session
Arguably the most anticipated part of the tour, is the tasting session at the Guest Hall. It’s a perfect way to relax after an hour walking around the factory. We all got hyped up for this 20 minutes of unlimited Kirin beverages. The session is same for whichever tour, so some of us just went straight in for the free beer, but of course, I much prefer the honeyed taste of Gogo no Kocha.
Things got more exciting as we, somehow, got into this rock-paper-scissor competition fighting for this one special cocktail made by our guide. You just couldn't wipe the big smile on the winner’s face.
If you fancy more drinks after the tour, you can always get more at the souvenir shop and the bar. Just before leaving, don’t forget to dress up as “Afternoon Tea” maids and take some fancy photos.
By car: 1 hour 15 minutes from Kyoto, 1 hours 30 minutes from Osaka.
By public transportation: 10 minutes from JR Minami Hikone station by bus bound for "Taga Taisha-mae Eki" and get off at the "Kirin Beer Mae" stop.
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Like many others from Hong Kong, Japan feels like a second home to me. Having been to Japan for more than twenty times, it has never failed to surprise me with something new and exciting. As a Digital Media Arts student at the University of Surrey in the UK, I am keen on using media, particularly photography, to share both my observations and recommendations of the places I have visited around Japan. I hope my content will come in handy, especially when you are heading to the lesser known areas in Japan.